Over the past year, Americans adopted pandemic puppies and quarantine kittens in droves. By now, these new owners are undoubtedly familiar with the boundless emotional benefits of animal companionship. But while those fur children have brought joy to so many during our particularly dark moment, their meat-heavy diets give them a rather large carbon pawprint.
Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. If America’s 163+ million dogs and cats were their own country, they’d rank fifth in worldwide meat consumption, according to a 2017 study by Gregory S. Okin, a professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. His research suggests that feeding America’s dogs and cats generates up to 64 million tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases per year, the equivalent of consuming 7 billion gallons of gasoline.
Overall, Okin estimates pets account for a whopping 25 to 30 percent of the “environmental impacts of animal production” in the United States, measured in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and biocides.
One critique of Okin’s study is that, aside from the growing trend of “premium” pet food, dog and cat chow is often made from animal parts we otherwise wouldn’t eat. Okin, however, believes that’s a “specious argument.” He says much of what we consider byproduct in the U.S. (think: livers, brains, intestines) could be sold to international consumers with different palates, or reformulated into food pellets that could, albeit controversially, help alleviate world hunger.
“One of the reasons the byproduct argument bothers me is because it exculpates people completely,” Okin tells Mic. “It’s byproduct because it’s been given to dogs and cats, not because the only use for it is to give it to dogs and cats.”
If crafting a bespoke diet with your vet sounds a bit too labor intensive, you could join the growing trend of just feeding your dog bugs.
Even if only 25 percent of the meat that goes into pet food could be consumed by humans, Okin says it would rival the amount of meat eaten by 26 million Americans, which is almost the population of Texas. “If you care about the environmental impacts of raising livestock,” he concludes, “feed less livestock to your pet.”
So what’s an eco-conscious pet owner to do? While PETA recommends feeding animals a vegetarian or vegan diet, experts say meat-free diets can have negative health impacts unless they’re carefully designed with the guidance of a veterinarian.
If crafting a bespoke diet with your vet sounds a bit too labor intensive, you could join the growing trend of just feeding your dog bugs. Though pet food made with insects is already on shelves in Europe, it’s been slower to arrive in the States because the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t officially approved any insects as dog or cat food ingredients. So companies interested in selling bug-based pet food must present their own dossiers of data to demonstrate their ingredients are “generally recognized as safe.”
One company that has done so is Jiminy’s. After several years of selling bug-based treats, which are subject to fewer regulations, it released two dry dog foods this year: one made with crickets and one with black soldier fly larvae.
“If you make a dog food that is better from a sustainability perspective, you can impact almost that dog’s entire eating occasions for the year,” Anne Carlson, who founded Jiminy’s in 2016, tells Mic. “You can really see us fighting climate change with this.”
Crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein, and can be fed with food waste or manure.
As an example, Jiminy’s claims that switching a dog from a chicken-based diet to a cricket-based diet can save up to 480,000 gallons of water per year, depending on the size of the dog. Yora, a British company that produces grub-based pet food, says farming its insects uses just 2 percent of the land and generates just 4 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions as cattle farming. By going from beef to bugs, Yora estimates an owner could save 112.1 tons of CO2 over the lifetime of a 55-pound dog — the equivalent of flying from London to Barcelona 640 times.
A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations affirms that farming insects is much more sustainable than farming traditional livestock. It notes the former doesn’t require land clearing, emits less ammonia and “considerably fewer” greenhouse gases, and is far more efficient. Crickets, for instance, need 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein, and can be fed with food waste or manure.
Besides being better for the planet, bug-based pet food might check the boxes from a nutritional standpoint, too. While experts say more research is needed, one study found certain insects to be high-quality, digestible protein sources for dogs and cats, and the British Veterinary Association’s president has called insect-based pet foods “nutritious and bioavailable.”
The only problem: Insect-based pet food is pricey. A 10-pound bag of Jiminy’s least expensive dry dog food costs $45.95, while a 17-pound bag of Pedigree chicken dog food costs $12.60.
Jiminy’s founder Carlson attributed the price to the industry’s nascency, and said costs are dropping as farmers get more experience and learn how to streamline operations. Costs may also decrease as bigger players get into the game. Nestlé Purina PetCare, the world’s second-largest pet food company, began selling a larvae-based line in Switzerland in November. Cassandra Blázquez, a company representative, said a cricket formula will be available for online purchase in the U.S. starting in January 2021.
Ultimately, whether or not insect-based pet foods thrive will depend on whether the growing number of global pet owners purchases it. Though Jiminy’s sales have tripled this year, companies like it represent a miniscule fraction of the $75.5 billion pet food industry.
Still, Carlson remains hopeful that insect kibble will be the next big thing. “Each time we choose products, we're voting for the world we want to live in,” she said. “And quite frankly, we're consuming resources too quickly. To have a real future, we need to do things differently and make better choices. What we're providing here is one of those options: a better choice.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Gregory S. Okin's 2017 findings. His research suggests the pet food industry generates up to 64 million tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases, not 64 million tons of CO2.